Tangible growth in Ladakh since it became Union Territory: RK Mathur
Lieutenant Governor R K Mathur has said there has been tangible growth in the region since the Union Territory (UT) of Ladakh was carved out of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) three years back. In an interview with HT, Mathur spoke about the progress of his model of development, challenges and priorities. Edited excerpts:
What has changed since Ladakh became UT?
There has definitely been a tangible growth, better than what it was during the pre-UT days. Our priorities are clear. Each department has a vision statement and a road map. Take the example of the education sector. All schools in Ladakh are now CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education)-affiliated. Earlier they were affiliated with the Jammu and Kashmir Board. This has meant a significant improvement in infrastructure and quality of education. We now have 20 astronomy labs because that is an interesting area for Ladakh. Six Atal Tinkering Labs have been set up. Schools here are spread out and it is difficult to have full staff and infrastructure for a small group of students. So, we embarked on a new approach to aggregate middle, high and senior secondary schools. The aggregation will lead to a better quality of education. All our teachers have been trained twice over three years.
The overall pass percentage at the board level has improved by 7% as compared to previous years. Ladakh University is up and running. Sindhu University, a central institution, has been sanctioned. Colleges are substantially better in terms of infrastructure, including heating and internet. The medical college, funded by the Centre, has enrolled its first batch. Indian Institute of Hotel Management is coming up. In two years, Kargil will have an engineering college and Leh a medical college. So, higher education will be fairly better.
What have been the key challenges?
The first is on the administrative side. You do not have a secretariat and a Lieutenant Governor’s office. There was nothing. Before August 2019, Ladakh had just two deputy commissioner offices (in Leh and Kargil). Converting this into a government is a big task that stands accomplished to a good extent. The second challenge was bigger. After all, the purpose of a UT is to meet local aspirations. A lot of development here was a carbon copy of what was being attempted in J&K that did not fulfil Ladakhi aspirations and needs. If you are making a building here, would you follow Ladakhi architecture or Kashmiri? These are simple but bigger questions. For us, it boiled down to minting a Ladakhi model of development by figuring out local needs and aspirations and converting them into ground reality step by step.
Has Ladakh’s umbilical cord with J&K been fully snapped?
Not substantially. Because break-up of the administration between the two UTs is a big job that includes the transfer of posts, manpower and vacancies. In addition, there have to be a lot of J&K staff at certain levels that has not been transferred as they are still needed. That would take a little longer. Administratively speaking, bureaucracy still has a lot of overlap, but otherwise, we behave as a totally independent UT.
How has the financial allocation for Ladakh changed?
Until 2019, the main allocations were coming to two autonomous hill development councils in Leh and Kargil. Annually, these were in the range of ₹60 to ₹70 crore each. Last year, the councils got ₹232 crore each, and this year it will be ₹258 crore. This shows a jump in allocation to elected councils.
What is the status of the ₹50,000-crore special central package that was part of the reorganisation exercise?
It is coming in a staggered manner. In the UT’s first financial year, which began in October 2019, we got ₹3,000 crore as a special development fund. That amount has continued every year. The battle here is not for money; it is your ability to spend that. Ladakh was used to spending ₹150 crore a year. Now, scaling up the capacity to make ₹3,000 crore expenditure has been the real challenge. Last year, we achieved substantially higher spending out of the ₹3,500 crore allocation. It would be a work in progress because your capacity to spend the money diligently with some effect on the ground would improve only gradually.
What is the progress on telecom connectivity that has been a challenge because of the terrain?
All 193 panchayats have V-Sat connectivity. In telecom coverage through towers, things have changed substantially. When Ladakh became a UT, it had 320 towers. Now the number is over 500, covering about 70% to 80% of villages. In two years, we will have 100% connectivity.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has articulated his vision of making Ladakh the country’s first carbon-neutral region. How have things moved so far?
Carbon neutrality, for us, is like a mantra which reflects in every decision the government makes. We have decided not to buy new diesel-generation (DG) sets and are phasing out existing ones. Wherever we do not have regular power supply, and there are many such places even today, DG sets were used. But we are replacing them with national grid connectivity or supplying power through the solar network. About 70% of our villages are already grid-connected. Before Ladakh became a UT, the grid did not exist. That automatically impacts carbon neutrality. A significant change will come through the 7,500-MW solar project in the works. That itself will wipe out any carbon negativity that we may have. By the middle of next year, we will have a 150-MW solar plant in operation, and at least two pilots of one MW each on hydrogen. It would give hydrogen mobility for heavy vehicles. There will be another plant to tap geothermal energy. Most of Ladakh’s daily needs, particularly vegetables, come from outside. You can imagine the number of trucks hauling these supplies. For sustainable carbon neutrality, they are an important factor. To this end, we have launched Mission Organic Development Initiative to convert all agricultural produce in Ladakh to organic by 2025. Likewise, the Ladakh Greenhouse Project aims to grow vegetables around the year. That will make a big difference to logistics change and automatically implies energy saving.
Has Ladakh’s new status opened the doors for private investments to ramp up its economy and job creation?
Ladakh has a small population base of three lakh, which is roughly 55,000 families. Of them, about 15,000 are in government jobs, while many have their own businesses. My assessment is overall 15,000 to 20,000 families need to be employed to create wealth for themselves. Strengthening of primary sectors will serve them better. Ladakh is not self-sufficient in milk, and nor is the army which has numbers equal to the local population. All you have to do is: Produce enough milk, vegetables and fruits. Just that would bring enough prosperity. Private investment will have to come primarily in the power sector. Solar and wind power are comparatively cheaper in Ladakh so long as we keep clear regime of rules and regulation. Another leg-up for the local economy will come from home stays in large numbers. I do not see the need of a major hotel chain here. Our model will be a decentralised tourism.
The UT status raised the locals’ expectations for government jobs. How far have they been met?
In less than three years, 660 regular appointments have been made. Another 800 jobs have been given as part of outsourcing of professionals, mostly locals, by government departments. Recruitment to another 1,200 posts is in the pipeline. All put together, that means 2,500-odd jobs in three years for two districts where jobs were limited to less than 50 a year. So, the windfall that was expected is already half way there.
After the UT status, there were apprehensions about the influx of outsiders and its impact on Ladakh’s demography and culture. How has that been addressed in the context to the need for outside investment?
Despite Article 370 being repealed, the legal situation in terms of laws of J&K has hardly changed. Very small changes have been made here and there. Laws of J&K, adapted in Ladakh, provide protection for both jobs and land. Legally, there is no reason for anybody to be worried about outsiders rushing here or buying the land left and right. None of that has happened in three years. Nor is this expected in the future because the administration’s intent is not to do it and the relevant laws which protect them continue to be in place.
How are you addressing long-standing regional faultlines between the Buddhist Leh and Muslim-dominated Kargil centred on allegations of discriminatory development?
Whatever Leh needs, it should get. And, whatever are Kargil’s needs, it should get. So, it is more a question of giving to both the districts according to their needs and aspirations. It is not a question of equality in funding. It does not have to be 50% Leh and 50% Kargil because that does not make sense. The proof lies in the fact that we did not have any issues of Leh versus Kargil in development and administration.
What has been the pace of infra ramp-up in Ladakh’s border areas in the context of the military stand-off between India and China on the eastern front of this region?
First, there has been no impact on Ladakh’s development works because of any external situation. But more importantly, we have the villages along China and Pakistan borders where we are making serious efforts to develop infrastructure and livelihoods. For example, Changthang, which is on the China border. Almost two-and-a-half years ago, I announced a package of ₹245 crore for an area spread over 15,000 sq km with a population of 15,000. The plan has elements of infrastructure, development and culture. It is under implementation and is being rigorously followed up. It is having an impact. We had no telecom towers on the China border until recently. Today, we have 10 villages which have towers and more are planned. So, infrastructure and livelihood base are changing. There is a focus on development in border areas.